The Challenge for Employers: Balancing Workers’ Desire for Flexibility against the Benefits of Physical Connection in the Workplace
In his 2023 letter to Blackrock investors and shareholders, its CEO Larry Fink suggests that the “polycrisis” over the past few years which has included Covid, war in Europe, political polarisation and macro-economic shifts has eroded trust and our collective belief in a better future. He calls for leaders – of countries and companies – who can give people reasons to be hopeful and articulate a brighter future: “People only invest if they believe in the future … [it] is an act of hope and optimism”.
And in his view, physicalconnectedness in a workplace is fundamental to building trust and hope; tech and remote working may have played a critical role during the pandemic, but the virtual workplace is no longer a substitute for face-to-face shared experiences. And earlier this year I wrote about the various research that demonstrates how being physically present with one another builds connections that boost our physical, emotional and mental health.
Six months on and hybrid work is – at least for white-collar and professional workers – the norm. But we have learned that hybrid - by and of itself – can’t build connectedness. Companies that ignore this, suggests Fink, risk an existential challenge: “in a world where companies’ ability to attract the best talent can mean the difference between success and failure, building bonds that go beyond just a paycheck has never mattered more”.
Fink and Blackrock are examples of a leader and company with a clear mission, vision and values that articulate why and how they are in business. These are the building-blocks for establishing a connection with employees that go beyond the ‘paycheck’ but only if the organisation’s actions match its words. Just as Fink argues that people will only invest their money if they have a belief in the future, employees and workers will only invest their time and effort if they believe that by doing so, they will have a better future.
The Talent Battle
Falling birth rates and an ageing population mean that the UK is predicted to be dependent (by 2025) on migration to increase its working age population. It also means that employers looking to attract and retain talent will need to understand how to build the type of bonds that go beyond pay. In the short term, this means engaging with and understanding employee demographics – the forces that shaped them and their aspirations – and in particular, Millennials (aged 23-38) and in the longer term, the world’s largest demographic, “Gen Z” (aged 7-22).
Dismissed as “snowflakes” by some, Deloitte published research that found that nearly half of Gen Z and 40% of Millennials reported feeling stressed all the time and that the high cost of living and economic uncertainty were primary causes. Perhaps the findings aren’t surprising.
Millennials were aged between 12-27 at the time of the 2008 financial crisis and most entered the workforce at the height of the economic recession. They have rarely if ever known job security, a final salary pension or, for many, even held realistic hopes of home-ownership. Instead, their generation’s reality has consisted of student debt, prolonged periods of living ‘at home’ and economic insecurity.
So, if “work” can’t realistically deliver on life’s big moments – getting married, buying a home, starting a family – it is perhaps not surprising that these generations are re-evaluating the concept of work altogether.
And in the post-pandemic era, it is clear that flexibility and balance are clear expectations and drivers. It is also where employers need to navigate the tension between seeking the type of physical connectedness that research shows is better for organisations and individuals against the working freedom and flexibility sought by workers.
Breaking The Habit
In a recent article, journalist Martha Gill – a Millennial – made an interesting comparison between remote working and online dating apps, “most people would rather meet someone organically than online. We miss the social activities. We complain. But still we keep swiping” and goes on to ask, whether "the choice to work from home has allowed us to form self-sabotaging habits that we cannot break alone?”
And one clear way that organisations can seek to help with breaking this habit is by ensuring that hybrid working arrangements result from a clear, strategic design imperative: to build connectedness. Alignment with values and purpose is important but crafting shared spaces and working practices with connectedness in mind is also critical. Good examples of spatial and ritualdesign include:
digital free zones
team “neighbourhoods” in place of hot-desking
a no email rule for anyone in walking distance
ambassadors/champions for matters such as mental health
spaces that overtly invite contact (similar to the ‘happy to chat’ benches in social spaces)
lighting design in social spaces that encourages ‘lingering’ and mixing
socially impactful activities (over and above traditional ‘social’ activities)
Fink also advocates recognition and reward for horizontal leadership and the qualities and skills that build connection such as reciprocity and the ability to work across teams to innovate, drive forward goals and deliver for clients. Reciprocity – sharing information, ideas and decision making more freely – has been found to be better at building trust and belonging and of appealing more widely to ‘new’ generations of workers.
If Fink is right and trust and hope are in short supply, finding ways to promote connectedness in the workplace is a win/win for the individual and organisation.
Numerous examples of research have established that lonely employees have a higher risk of turnover, lower productivity, more missed days at work, and lower quality of work and that in contrast, employees who experience high-levels of belonging have a drop in turnover risk, an increase in job performance and a reduction in sick days.
The reward for employers who engage with their workers to build trust, hope and connection is obvious. And so is the risk for those that don’t.